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The advance camp was an assortment of canvas prefabs erected a few hundred yards from the river. After hours, you could hear the fast-flowing water chuckling and gurgling like a gleeful baby.
It wasn’t a bad place to be, if you didn’t mind being nowhere. The closest town, which wasn’t much more than an oblast station, was three hours drive east, six if the day was warm and the track turned to mud.
The camp sat against a screen of grey conifers that hid the mossy,
misty depths of the forest. A patch of ground was being cleared to make a landing strip, but it was slow work.
Technically, it was early summer, but this far north summer had only managed to give the region the limpest of embraces. The nights were still long, and the brief days were watery and cool, with hazy white skies that turned the broad tracts of forest and the hills beyond into brooding watercolour studies.
Walking up from the latrines to the north end of the camp, Dima tamped a filterless cigarette against the side of its packet. He wasn’t going to smoke it, but the habit kept his hands busy. The commanding officer had restricted smoking privileges inside the camp, and it was prohibited on open forest patrols. To Dima, this was another symptom of the pro-
gressive Westernisation of Russian culture. He’d read about it in one of his sister’s glossy magazines. Smoking was banned in the West; you couldn’t even light up in bars. Drinking was frowned on, too. Men were transforming into what they called “metrosexual” creatures, all tanned and toned and depilated, with a sudden interest in childcare and macrobiotics.
It made him laugh. When signs of this creeping decay showed up in the Russian Army, then it was time to man the barricades.
He played with the fat cigarette. The old habit would die hard in him and he was proud of it. In the eyes of the West, he would be seen as a dinosaur, a throwback, a primitive beast from the distant past, out-
evolved and threatened with extinction.
The reason he didn’t light it actually had nothing to do with the CO’s orders. Cigarettes were a scarce commodity at the advance camp, and there was no local store or bar to buy them from. A man guarded his supply, and rationed it carefully. There was no way of telling how long the deployment was going to last.
Routine manoeuvres, that’s what they had all been told – an un-
scheduled training exercise in the deep woods of the Krasnoyarsk Krai,
six weeks minimum, maybe more. Dima had hoped that the spring might see his unit off on a more recreational deployment, perhaps on the Baltic.
Instead they got months in the damp and drizzle of Siberia.
Still, the prefabs were heated, the food was good and plentiful, and the regimen none too arduous. He quite liked the woods. He liked the peace,
the stillness, the endless nature of the forest. Sometimes, on patrol, he could lose himself. It felt as if the trees stretched away from him in all directions, including time.
He liked the way the stillness could be broken by sudden, bright bird song: clear notes, rasps, the band-saw buzzing of woodpeckers. There were other sounds too, from deep in the woods, grunts and squeals made by animals he had not yet identified.
A human cry broke the air.
Someone in the camp had shouted. Dima turned and caught sight of a 4x4 coming down the loop track through the trees. Its top was down,
and its headlamps were switched on to combat the overcast gloom, even though it was late morning. Dima stuffed the cigarette back into the packet and jogged over to the side of the track, the folded skeleton stock of his AK-74 bumping against his shoulder.
He raised his hand in a friendly challenge. The approaching 4x4
dropped a gear and began to slow down. There were four men aboard: an army regular at the wheel and three troopers in black BDUs and field caps. The trio wore no insignia or unit marks, and no expressions on their faces. Their Bergens and cased weapons were piled in the back of the vehicle behind them.
Dima felt a pinch of anxiety.
Aye, aye, what’s this now? These men aren’t regulars. He knew exactly what they looked like. Voiska Spetsialnoye Nasranie, that’s what they damned well looked like. Troops of Special Purpose. What were they doing here? Suddenly the deployment didn’t feel so much like a routine training exercise. Top brass pulled that kind of stunt all the time. A man got deployed, and then found out it was the real deal.
The 4x4 halted beside him.
“Morning,” he said, waiting for them to identify themselves so he could allow them to pass.
“I’ve got to get these boys to the CO,” the driver said.
“That shouldn’t be a problem,” Dima responded easily.
The man in the passenger seat fixed him with a caustic gaze. The guy had deep scars running straight down from the corners of his mouth that reminded Dima of the chin-joints of wooden ventriloquist dummies.
“You know who we are?” he asked Dima belligerently. His accent was strong, maybe Rostov or the Urals.
“Yeah, I think so,” Dima replied, trying to keep it light.
“Then do us a favour,” the man said, and he made a little gesture with his hand that suggested he was brushing Dima out of his way, like a scatter of cake crumbs.
Dima heard a sharp whistle. He looked over his shoulder. Several men had emerged from the camp’s prefabs, and one of them was Zvegin, the
CO’s adjutant. Zvegin waved impatiently. He forked his fingers into his mouth and blew another shrill whistle.
Dima took a breath.
“On you go then,” he said.
The driver thumped the gears and squirmed the 4x4 away down the rutted, wet track as if he was on a tight clock.
Dima watched them go. What was this all about? Spetsnaz. Bloody
Spetsnaz. There was going to be trouble, he could feel it in his gut.
He wandered away from the track and into the trees, turning things over in his head. The firs were solemn and grey, and seemed sympathetic.
They didn’t mind if he took five and smoked a cigarette.
So he lit up. His feet were damp. The forest floor was covered in needle litter and little browned scraps of pine cone that looked like spent ammunition. Rocks were caked with lichen as pale as verdigris. Birds piped and chattered in the vaults of the wood. There were black spruce and fir, and enduring larch, and the occasional broadleaf. Daylight, as muffled and white as snow, sank through the canopy overhead.
He inhaled. God damn the West and its emasculating trends. Few things could match a drag on a filterless cigarette, and fewer still could compete with that experience in the great outdoors. Fresh air seemed to magnify the flavour.
As he continued to smoke, Dima gradually realised that the wood had become very quiet. The birds had stopped calling. He couldn’t even hear the occasional crack and pistol shot of the stirring trees. He felt un-
accountably guilty about the cigarette in his hand, as if the stink of it had forced nature into disapproving silence. The smell of the smoke was certainly pungent. It carried in the cold, damp air.
Dima hoped to hell the CO couldn’t smell it down in the camp.
He pinched the ash off the half-smoked cigarette and put the offend-
ing butt in his top pocket. Then he turned.
It was simply standing behind him. It was just there, as tall and as solid and as motionless as the trees. He wondered – in the very little space of time left for wondering – how something so entirely huge could have approached without him hearing anything.
It was such a shock to turn and find it standing there that he forgot to be terrified.
Then Dima began to remember very quickly. He reached for his AK,
fumbling with the strap like a raw recruit.
The creature snapped forward to take him. It moved with a speed that something so big had no business being capable of. Its jaws opened.
He saw teeth, and a gape a metre wide.
It was going to be bad.
Central London, a weekday lunchtime, fine weather, crowded streets;
the factors did not add up well. Whenever the ADD – the anomaly detector – painted a contact anywhere near a population centre, the team moved with particular urgency. Today, the contact point was slap bang in the middle of the biggest population centre around.
“Let’s hope it’s something small and fluffy,” James Lester said, sitting in the back of the sleek black SUV as it attempted to edge through the dense traffic. “Something from a quieter moment in history. Something cute. Perhaps something furry with big eyes. Or something pretty and bird-like. I don’t know, something –”
“Vegetarian?” Jenny suggested.
Lester turned to look at her.
“Vegetarian would be good,” he agreed. “Vegetarian would be excellent.”
Jenny Lewis returned her attention to the laptop that was open on her knees.
“Cover story?” Lester asked.
“Just the basic shape for the press release,” she replied, “so we can rush it out as soon as the incident’s been contained.”
Lester pulled out his mobile and tried a number. Then he made a face.
“Cutter’s not picking up. Why doesn’t that surprise me? Far be it from him to keep us in the loop.”
“He’s probably got his hands full,” Jenny offered, still typing.
Lester leaned forward, and raised his voice.
“Can we get through this?” he asked the driver. “Can we try? We’re not even on Charing Cross Road.”
“It’s a bit stuck, sir,” the driver replied.
Lester made a slightly pained expression and sat back. Jenny looked up.
“If it doesn’t start moving soon, I’m going to get out and walk,” she said. Lester didn’t look too enamoured of that idea.
“It’s Oxford Street,” she continued. “The contact was right on Oxford
Street. That’s got to be less than 300 yards from here. I –”
“Bloody hell,” the driver exclaimed emphatically.
Suddenly, there were people all around them, a rushing tide of people pushing and threading through the stationary traffic. They were moving fast, in panic, in fear. There was a commotion of agitated voices, shout-
ing and yelling. Lester’s vehicle rocked as the flow of bodies bumped and shoved past it. Hundreds of people – shoppers, tourists, city workers –
were pouring back down Charing Cross Road from the direction of
“Oh God,” Lester sighed.
“I think that pretty much answers the question,” Jenny said.
“It’s not vegetarian.”
“Hold on,” Cutter told them.
“No no no no no!” Connor pleaded from the passenger seat next to him.
The road was blocked. Hastily abandoned cars littered the street, and floods of people were swarming towards them. Cutter swung the wheel,
and the big silver pick-up mounted the curb at speed. He kept one palm flat on the horn, encouraging people to get out of his way.
“Try not to kill anyone!” Abby called out from the back.
“Particularly, like, us!” Connor added.
Nick Cutter’s expression was grim. He didn’t reply. He kept his hand on the horn, and his foot on the accelerator. The pick-up blasted down the pavement. He had to jink the wheel to avoid an old man who seemed too dazed to get out of the way, and the pick-up’s bull bars clipped a litter bin and sent it flying across the road.
“Was that a person? Oh God, did we just hit someone?” Connor asked.
He had his hands over his eyes.
“No, we didn’t,” Cutter muttered. He wrenched on the wheel, and bumped them off the pavement and across a zebra crossing. He spun the wheel sharply again, and began to drive down Oxford Street on the wrong side of the road.
Two black Land Rovers with tinted windows followed Cutter’s pick-up in a tight, obedient formation. Every wild turn and illegal manoeuvre Cutter made, the Land Rovers stuck right with him, following him down the pavement and across the zebra crossing in a high-speed convoy, nose to tail.
The crowds of fleeing civilians began to thin. Within moments only an occasional straggler fled past, sprinting in the opposite direction.
Oxford Street – in the middle of a weekday lunchtime – had emptied.
It looked like the four-minute warning had sounded. Buses, taxies, and the odd private car choked the street in both directions, but they were all empty. Some had been left with their doors open and their engines running. That spoke of an alarming haste to leave. There were abandon-
ed bicycles, scattered bags of shopping, even a discarded set of golf-sale sandwich boards.
“How close?” Cutter asked.
“I couldn’t say,” Connor replied.
“Would you be able to say if you opened your eyes and looked at the detector?”
“Probably,” Connor agreed. He opened his eyes. They were back in the middle of the road, travelling down the centre line between the queues of cars and buses. Connor didn’t think their wing mirrors were long for this world.
“Um, island,” he said, pointing.
“I see it,” Cutter snapped, and he brutally swerved the pick-up around the traffic island without losing speed. “Detector?”
Lurching in the passenger seat of the thundering pick-up, Connor studied the display on the portable detector.
“Okay, less than a hundred metres now,” Connor said.
“Stop!” Abby cried.
Cutter hit the brakes and brought the pick-up to a juddering halt. The two black Land Rovers behind it braked savagely. The leading Land Rover turned out and came to a halt beside Cutter’s pick-up.
The Land Rover’s side window whirred down, revealing Hemple’s frowning face.
“Professor?” he asked.
Cutter nodded ahead, as if that said it all. Then he got out of the vehicle.
Abby took two CO2 pistols and two air-pump rifles out of the pick-up’s weapons case and loaded them, then she and Connor followed him.
Hemple touched his radio headset.
“Bone Idol is moving. Switching to feet. Go, go!”
The ARC’s armed response alpha team executed a rapid dismount from the Land Rovers. There were six of them – including Jake Hemple
– all dressed in black battledress and stab vests, and brandishing a variety of ultra-modern assault weapons. Before joining the ARC, every single one of them had been something seriously heavy in the services:
SAS, paras, commando.
“Bone Idol?” Cutter asked, glancing at Hemple as they strode forward.
“I don’t make the code names up, Professor.”
“I would imagine that would be Miss Lewis,” Hemple replied.
“Yes, I imagine it would,” Cutter said, glaring ahead.
“Do I have a code name?” Connor asked eagerly.
“Yes,” Hemple responded.
Ahead of them, the abandoned traffic had been rearranged. Several cars seemed to have been shunted out of line, forming a fairly effective roadblock across the street. Abby handed a CO2 pistol and an air-pump rifle to Cutter. He tucked the pistol into his belt and checked the rifle’s pump pressure.
Hemple raised his right fist and signalled his team forward. They skirted between the jumbled cars, crab-walking with their weapons aimed tight to their cheeks. Hemple and three of the others carried MP53s. Jenkins and Mason had Benelli MI Super 90 semi-automatic shotguns.
Cutter and Abby led the way, with Connor in tow, keeping his eyes on the portable detector. Hemple fanned his fire team out so that all three of the principals were in sight and covered at any time. He’d been work-
ing with the ARC long enough to know that things could hit the fan on an average day just as messily as they could in Basra or Helmand. He’d seen things, things his old oppos in 22 Regiment would never believe in a million years.
A million? Make that millions.
The shame of it was, Hemple wasn’t allowed to talk about any of it.
It was an odd job to wind up in, that was for sure. Here they were,
walking down the middle of Oxford Street, armed to the gills, trouble-
shooting for three oddball civilians.
There was Connor, a tall and gangly lad with shaving issues. He was a joker, a whizz-kid, a computer nerd... or was he a computer geek? Hemple wasn’t sure. There was Abby Maitland, petite and very pretty with her bob of white-blonde hair. Every time they went out on a call, she displayed a serious devotion to her work that would put most servicemen to shame.
Then there was the professor, Nick Cutter, clean-shaven with light,
unruly hair, mean and moody, driven and brilliant. Like all brilliant men,
he wasn’t an easy ride. Hemple admired him, but he didn’t get him at all.
Cutter had a bitter, wounded air about him, as if he’d lost too much already and was damned if he was going to let anything else slip away.
Cutter was leading the way through the stranded traffic. With his cargo trousers, his faded, green army jacket and his rifle, he looked for all the world like a great white hunter stalking big game on the veldt.
Hemple wondered exactly howbig the day’s game was going to be.
“Wow, that’s not right,” Connor said.
They were coming up on a black cab in the middle of the road ahead of them. The cab had been rammed with such force it had been flipped over onto its side. It lay in a starburst of chipped windscreen glass.
Connor stooped and peered in through the shattered window.
“Just look for the anomaly,” Cutter said. “We must be right on it.”
There was a brief, deep snorting sound from somewhere nearby.
Cutter took off at once, and Abby and Connor went with him as if they were tied to him with string.
Hemple waved his men after them.
Cutter ran to the next corner and skidded to a halt, looking around rapidly. The others came up behind him.
“Anything?” Abby asked.
Cutter shook his head.
“Can you still hear it?”
“No,” Cutter said, “it’s gone. I can smell something though.”
“Oh, nice!” Connor exclaimed. He’d stepped off the pavement and plant-
ed his right foot in a spatter of wet dung. “Oh, my shoe! Oh, that’s nasty!”
Cutter came over and bent down to examine the fecal matter.
“It’s fresh,” Connor moaned, “though not in every sense of the word.
Look at my shoe! That’s a brand-new pair of Vans, and they’re ruined!” He started to scrape his sole against the kerb.
“Well, Professor, did you find some useful... er... excrement?” Hemple asked, standing over Cutter.
“Oh, it smells reallybad!” Connor complained. He found some discard-
ed napkins and began to wipe off the offending fecal matter.
“Uh, yeah,” Cutter said to Hemple. “From the volume of the scat, it looks as if we’re dealing with a pretty big creature.”
“I guessed that from the overturned taxi,” Hemple said.
“True,” Cutter replied. “As for the consistency...”
“Yes, let’s examine that in detail,” Hemple suggested with a wry smile.
Cutter looked up and beckoned over Abby.
“What do you think?” he asked her.
“I can’t be sure,” she said, crouching down to look more closely, “but
I’d say we’re looking for an omnivore. Not a discriminating one, either.
There’s a lot of bone matter ground up in this, and undigested bark. All sorts of things.”
Abby stood up and looked around.
“I don’t know. A giant pig?” she suggested.
“A giant pig,” Hemple echoed doubtfully.
“Well, it’s not an exact science,” she protested.
“And it smells! Science smells!” Connor groaned, still wiping his shoe.
“We’ve got to spread out,” Cutter said.
“I’d be happier if we stayed as one group,” Hemple countered.
“I’d be happier if this wasn’t happening at all,” Cutter replied. “We’ve got to find this creature quick smart. It’s big, it’s aggravated, and it’s not fussy about what it takes a bite out of. It may not even be on Oxford
Street any more. It could have gone off down a side road. It could have gone anywhere.”
“I need Connor and Abby to find the anomaly and lock down its location,” Cutter told him.
“Mason? Redfern? Stay with them.” Hemple turned to the others. “Rest of you are with me and the prof.”
Cutter and the four soldiers moved away down the street. Cutter looked back over his shoulder.
“The anomaly,” he urged, “quickly, please.”
Connor nodded and with a final wipe he turned his attention back to the detector.
“Where do we start?” Mason asked, the big shotgun propped across his shoulder.
Connor slowly turned in a circle, standing on the spot, holding the detector up.
“We’re right on top of it. This way.”
He moved towards the nearest shops. Mason swung in behind him, his shotgun lowered to a cover position. The other soldier, Redfern, had his
MP53 pulled up tight against his chest.
“After you, miss,” he said to Abby. “And stay where I can see you.”
Cutter walked another thirty yards down the street, with Hemple and his men in tow. They passed two more vehicles – a BT van and another black cab – that had been struck and damaged. Both vehicles looked as though someone had gone at them angrily with a battering ram.
Cutter thought he heard the deep, ragged snorting noise again.
Jenkins turned to the left sharply, aiming his shotgun.
“Contact!” he barked.
“Hold your fire!” Hemple countered. He ran forward. There was a woman crumpled up in the doorway of a shoe shop. Her hair was bed-
raggled, and the front of her coat was soaked in blood.
“Dammit!” Cutter growled, moving beside Hemple and bending over her.
“Miss? It’s okay,” Hemple said softly. “You’re going to be okay.”
The woman didn’t reply. Her face was pale and she was staring at nothing. Her whole body was trembling very slightly.
“She’s in shock,” Cutter said. He reached in and gently moved her coat aside. There was no sign of injury.
“That’s not her blood,” Cutter confirmed. Parts of her coat were damp with something other than blood. Cutter touched the patches and sniffed his fingertips.
“That’s got to be saliva,” he said. “Smells pretty rank.”
“What did you see? Miss? What did you see?”
The woman was virtually catatonic. She didn’t respond to Hemple.
“Sir!” one of the team shouted.
Hemple and Cutter got up.
“Stay with her,” Hemple told Jenkins. “Keep talking to her.” Jenkins nodded, and knelt down in the doorway beside the woman.
Cutter and Hemple hurried to catch up with the other two men.
They’d come to a halt beside a single-decker bus. As he approached,
Cutter saw what they were standing over, and turned his head aside in anger and disappointment.
“We’ve got two dead here,” Garney, one of the two squad members,
said. He gestured to the body at his feet, and to another one nearby.
“There’s another one over by the kerb.”
“Oh God,” Cutter murmured.
“I can’t work out if they’ve been bitten or trampled to death,” Murdoch,
the other trooper, said.
“Or both,” Garney suggested.
It was a fearful, mangled mess. There was blood right across the road,
and it had spattered up the side of the bus and all over the white plastic traffic bollards on a nearby island. Deep impact dents showed where the side of the bus had been struck several times. Some of the side windows were broken.
Cutter made himself look at the bodies. This is what it meant when he didn’t get his job done – death, horrible, undeserved, violent death;
innocent people caught in harm’s way, their normal, everyday lives end-
ed, cut off. He wondered who the victims were. What had they been doing? Had they been shopping, or on their lunch breaks, or heading for an early showing at the cinema? What had they been planning for the rest of their day, their week?
Who was going to miss them when they didn’t come home?
Cutter swallowed hard. Anger swirled impotently inside him. How many more was it going to have to be?
He closed his eyes, and saw Stephen’s face.
He heard a deep, snorting noise.
Cutter opened his eyes. He listened hard. He glanced at Hemple and the two troopers, his expression fixed, and motioned them to follow him.
Thirty yards away, behind a Fed Ex van, something large was moving around. They could hear it snuffling and grunting. Over the top of the van, Cutter glimpsed a fleshy, humped back, thick with dark bristles. It was big, all right, whatever it was. He could smell its ripe, pungent odour.
He advanced more slowly now, the rifle in one hand, his other hand open and raised at his side, emphasising caution.
The thing behind the van moved again. They could hear what sounded like hooves clopping on the asphalt.
“Steady,” Cutter whispered. “I want to get the first shot. I want it alive,
“After what it did to those people?” Garney said, a look of shock on his face.
“I want it alive,” Cutter repeated.
He took another step.
His mobile started to ring.
Cutter hit ‘reject call’ as quickly as he could, glancing down. On the mobile’s screen, the caller ID read ‘Jenny Lewis’.
But he hadn’t been fast enough. The creature had heard. There was a violent, ugly snort from behind the Fed Ex van, and something struck the side of the vehicle so hard that it rocked down on its shocks. Then what-
ever it was started moving away, and quickly. They heard it crunching into vehicles. They heard the hoof-like clatter on the road surface.
“Come on!” Cutter yelled.
With the soldiers at his heels, he started to chase after it.